Distinguished Lecture Series on Indian Foreign Policy by the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs. Goa University, August 17, 2011
India’s Quest for a Permanent Seat on the UN Security Council
I am grateful to the Goa University and the Public Diplomacy Division of the Ministry of External Affairs for inviting me to deliver a lecture in the Distinguished Lecture Series on India’s Quest for a Permanent Seat on the UN Security Council. Public Diplomacy is fairly new to India, but it has spread its wings far and wide and has made a tremendous impact. I am delighted to be part of its effort to bring the intricate aspects of diplomacy to a wide audience and to attract talent to diplomacy as a profession. I must state, however, that the views contained in my lecture are my own and I have had no official briefing. I shall rely on my own experience of either dealing with the issue or following it in the last 32 years.
The UN reform we are seeking, particularly the expansion of the permanent membership of the Security Council, is nothing short of a revolution. We are challenging the very foundation of an institution, born out of a world war, the winners of which gave themselves the responsibility of maintaining world peace and security by assuming extraordinary powers. The UN Charter, which was crafted by them, has been embraced voluntarily by 192 nations. That there has not been a world war since and that the UN has served as a stabilizing factor in the world is the strongest argument for continuing the status quo. But the contrary argument is stronger, because the global equations have changed so much in the last 66 years that it is imperative that the UN must reflect those changes to maintain its representative character and moral strength. The struggle is on between those who wish to perpetuate their privileged positions and the forces of change that cannot but win. But no one can predict the time and nature of revolutions. They have their own logic and time.
The question today is not whether change is needed, but whether a real change can be brought about by the provisions of the very Charter that established the institution. If history is any guide, major changes take place when the time is ripe, in unexpected ways, regardless of the strength of those who seek change and those who resist. The provisions of the law that seek to protect the establishment will be thrown to the winds and the old system will yield place to the new. A Malayalam poet declared many years ago: “Change your out dated laws, if not, they will change you yourselves.” We have many examples in history to show that those who have conceded changes have lasted longer than those who have resisted the forces of change.
India was among those who lit the first spark of inevitable change, back in 1979, at the height of the cold war, when an item entitled “Equitable representation on and increase in the membership of the Security Council” was inscribed on the agenda of the General Assembly. The demand was to add a few more non-permanent members, on the simple logic that the ratio between the strength of the General Assembly and that of the Security Council should be maintained. The exponential increase in the membership of the UN should be reflected in the size of the Security Council. This principle was, in fact, followed in 1965 when the number of non-permanent members was raised from 6 to 10.
The reaction from the permanent members was instant and shocking. In an unprecedented show of solidarity, they opposed the move tooth and nail. They argued that any expansion of the Security Council would undermine its efficiency, integrity and credibility and ensured that the agenda item was postponed year after year, with a nominal and sterile debate. The idea remained alive, but no action was taken till the end of the cold war.
The game changed in the early nineties, when the idea of adding new permanent members was brought up by Brazil and we initiated the exercise of ascertaining the views of the members and setting up a mechanism to study the proposals and to reach consensus. The permanent members led by the US offered a “quick fix” after initial hesitation and proposed the addition of Japan and Germany as permanent members on the ground of their being the highest contributors to the UN budget after the US and a marginal increase in the non-permanent membership. If India had not stopped the “quick fix” and insisted on comprehensive reform with the support of the nonaligned group, the door for expansion would have been closed after inducting Japan and Germany at that time. We demolished the payment argument by stating that permanent membership should not be up for sale. If I may be permitted to quote from my own speech at the Working Group in February 1995, “Contribution to the UN should not be measured in terms of money. We do not agree with the view expressed by a delegation that permanent membership is a privilege that can be purchased. Financial contributions are determined on the basis of “capacity to pay” and those who pay their assessments, however small, are no whit less qualified for privilege than the major contributors.”
As a lethargic debate went on in the Working Group for years, national positions evolved and loyalties changed, but it became clear that the expansion of the Security Council could not be easily accomplished. The formation of an interest group called the “Coffee Club” and later “Uniting for Consensus” which opposed any expansion of the permanent membership made the situation more chaotic. We ourselves advanced our position from seeking to establish criteria, such as population, seminal contribution to the UN, participation in peacekeeping operations etc to staking a claim and began campaigning bilaterally in capitals. Over the years, our claim became strong and it became universally recognized that if a single developing country were to become a permanent member, that would be India. One adverse consequence of the debate, however, was that the discussions highlighted that a vast majority of member states had not served even once on the Security Council, while countries like India, Japan, Pakistan and Egypt had served on the Council several times. This led to our long absence from the Council from 1993 to 2010 after having been elected as a non-permanent member 7 times in the earlier period.
Efforts made outside the Working Group were also fruitless. After the deliberations of a High Level Group, Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed two Plans; Plan A, proposing creation of 6 permanent and 3 non-permanent seats and Plan B, proposing 8 new seats for 4 years subject to renewal and 1 non-permanent seat. The Plan B had greater acceptability in the Group and it was at the insistence of General Satish Nambiar, the Indian member of the Group that Plan A was included. Another exercise undertaken by India, Brazil, Germany and Japan (G-4) to get the General Assembly to adopt a resolution on expansion failed to take off because of differences with the African Group. It, however, resulted in the G-4 conceding for the first time that they would not insist on the veto at least for 15 years. The General Assembly recently entered intergovernmental negotiations to suggest a “timeline perspective” to agree on reform in two stages on the basis of a draft text, but no progress has been reported as yet. A move is afoot by the G-4 to introduce a resolution to decide that both permanent and non-permanent membership will be expanded, but its fate is uncertain.
The story so far of our quest for a permanent seat on the Security Council is “Kabhi Khushi, Kabhie Ghum” (Joy sometimes, despair at other times), as Ambassador Hardeep Puri described it, drawing inspiration from a Bollywood movie of that name. In fact, there is more despair than joy in that saga. The only reason for joy is that the need for expansion has been recognized by the entire membership and that there is also recognition that if the permanent membership is ever expanded, India will be the first developing country to find a place in it. For the rest, there are almost as many views as there are members of the UN about the size, composition and rights and responsibilities of the members of the Security Council. As of now, there is no formula for expansion which can command consensus or even secure two thirds majority of the General Assembly, including the support of the 5 permanent members.
The framers of the UN Charter did not intend that it should be amended easily. But that has not prevented the UN from transforming itself to deal with new issues and new circumstances. Today’s preoccupations of the UN like peacekeeping, human rights, environment, climate change etc were not anticipated in the Charter. The flexibility and resilience of the Charter have been tested again and again and nothing in the Charter has prevented the UN from taking on new responsibilities and obligations. Charter amendments have not been initiated even to remove anachronisms like the enemy countries clause and the name of one of the permanent members. The most crucial article of the Charter on the veto itself has been changed in practice as abstention by a permanent member is considered a concurring vote. The proposals for reform like the working methods of the Council introduced in the Working Group from time to time are mere diversionary tactics as these can be adopted without any amendment to the Charter. But when it comes to an expansion of the Security Council, the only way is to bring a Charter amendment. This explains why the only amendment of the Charter was made in 1965 to raise the number of non-permanent members from 6 to 10 when the strength of the General Assembly increased. The different groups of countries and entrenched interests are in no mood to repeat the exercise, particularly if the permanent membership should be touched.
The permanent members, for instance, consider that they only stand to lose by adding new permanent members with veto. They have made it clear that there is no question of veto being extended to the new permanent members, even though some of them tactically accept the African demand for veto. Even the UK, France and Russia, who have extended support to India and others, have not taken any action to bring about changes. One thing that France and the UK dread is the suggestion that the EU should have only one representative, while they already have two inside and another at the door. They are not willing to float a formula for expansion even to set the ball rolling. The same is the case with many others, who have pledged support to India and other candidates. In many cases, such support is an easy gesture to win goodwill. No group, outside the G-4, is actively campaigning for a formula. The African Group differs significantly from G-4 because of their insistence on the veto and an additional non-permanent member. Moreover, the idea of the African Group is to rotate two permanent memberships within the Group, itself a contradiction. The Uniting for Consensus group wants to add only 10 new non-permanent members. This is an attractive proposition for a large number of small states, whose chances of serving on the Council will increase, while they have nothing to gain by adding new permanent members. In other words, the G-4 proposal for 6 new permanent members and 4 non-permanent members cannot as yet win a two thirds majority in the General Assembly, not to speak of the support of the P-5.
The US, which had supported Japan and Germany in the early nineties, now favours “two or so” new permanent members, including Japan and “2 or 3” non-permanent members making an addition of only 5 more to the Security Council. Such a formula is a non-starter. The support extended to India by President Obama during his visit to India is in the form of a wish without a commitment to bring it about. His words were: “In the years ahead, I look forward to a reformed Security Council that includes India as a permanent member.” Though this is a significant departure from the previous US position, it is not enough for the US to extend support to India; it should shape a formula, which is acceptable to the membership. Its reservation over Germany and Brazil will itself deprive it of being decisive on the issue of expansion.
We did not need Wikileaks to find the reasons for the reluctance of the US to bring about expansion of the Council. But we now have it in black and white what we knew from the beginning. “We believe expansion of the Council along the lines of the models currently discussed will dilute US influence in the body…..On most important issues of the day—Sanctions, Human Rights, Middle East etc---Brazil, India and most African states are currently far less sympathetic to our views than our European allies”, said the US Ambassador in a cable in December 2007. The US delegation at the UN seems to have only a watching brief till intervention becomes necessary to prevent an expansion that will not serve US interests. There is expectation, however, that President Obama might declare openness to a modest expansion of the Security Council at the next session of the General Assembly. But a special report of the Council on Foreign Relations which has urged the President to do so makes the expansion contingent on demonstration of the qualifications of permanent membership. The position of the aspirants on non-proliferation, climate change and human rights will be subject to scrutiny. A few days ago, our Minister of State for External Affairs indicated that both India and the US were actively involved in the ongoing negotiations.
China is opposed explicitly to Japan and implicitly to India, though it pays lip service to developing countries’ representation on the Council. Its position could be decisive as the permanent members will coordinate their positions before any advance is made.
If I may go back to where I began, it will be difficult to accomplish the fundamental change we are seeking by way of the procedure laid down for change. Like it happened in the case of the formation of G-20 when G-8 could not resolve the unprecedented economic crisis, a situation may arise when the P-5 find it difficult to maintain international peace and security without additional permanent members and thus force their hands to accept change. Such an ominous future was predicted by the President of the General Assembly, when he said on May 16, 2011, “Unless we find the determination to advance on the issue, the UN will lose its credibility. Our organization will be marginalized and important issues will be discussed in other forums and groupings, which are perceived to be more efficient and more representative of the new realities of the day.” Such a situation may arise sooner than later and that gives us reason for joy even in the midst of despair.
India and the other aspirants for permanent membership, in the meantime, must maintain pressure for expansion. But to give the impression that permanent membership is the holy grail of Indian foreign policy does not enhance our prestige. Legend has it that India spurned an offer to take over China’s permanent seat on the Security Council, saying that we would win it in our own right one day. That position has won us more glory than what we have gained by our constant knocking at all doors. Making support for our permanent membership the litmus test of bilateral relations is untenable. We should appear more confident and secure even as we demand our rightful place in keeping with our status as the largest democracy with a dynamic, fast growing economy, an impressive record in UN peacekeeping, ability to protect the global commons and to combat transnational terrorism and strong record against proliferation.
May I also say, without appearing to spurn the proverbial “sour grapes”, that permanent membership without veto is not such an attractive trophy that we should expend unlimited resources and energy on it. As a member of the Council, India will be called upon to take sides on every issue in the world, sometimes losing friends in the process as we are fiercely independent and do not play second fiddle to anyone. The lack of the veto may make us vulnerable as a result, if issues of crucial importance to us come up in the Council. India has been playing a significant role even without being on the Security Council for many years. A posture of our willingness to serve when required to do so rather than being desperate about securing a seat here and now may be a good strategy to adopt. The UN needs reform not to make one country or the other happy, but to make itself more relevant, credible and effective in the world and it will be ready for a revolution sooner rather than later.